John 11:1-44, condensed
This is the rare Sunday where I want to be very clear with you that I did not choose our scripture readings this morning. They come straight from the Revised Common Lectionary, and they come around every three years on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, pandemic or not.
Several weeks ago, when I conceived of a Lenten series focused on God’s extravagant, gracious, and merciful love for the world, I thought today’s readings would give us a good opportunity to consider and celebrate God’s love for life. Our Ezekiel passage is practically dripping with this love.
In the prophet’s vision of a valley filled with bones, the word of the Lord asks, “Can these dry bones live?” And then God answers the question not once but eight times, saying, “You shall live. You shall live. That they may live. And they lived. I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your grave. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. I have spoken and I will act.”
Weeks ago, I read this scripture as a powerful and encouraging metaphor. But now, with the entire world God so loves ravaged by infection and suffering, with the number of coronavirus-related deaths in the Unites States doubling over the past two days, with the center of Amherst and some of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities looking like ghost towns, and with non-stop news about it all, perhaps we’d just as soon skip over not a scripture that speaks of bones and graves and an absence of breath.
It’s bad enough to be told to live as if so much of what we normally do could threaten the lives of others and almost everything we touch could threaten our own lives. It’s bad enough to realize that one of the few things we can do to protect our own lives and the lives of others is to give up so much of what makes our lives meaningful and enjoyable.
But do we really want to consider a valley of dry bones, a situation so bad that the people live as if they’re already in their graves?
And then there’s the Lazarus story: more love, for sure—so much love—but also more death, more loss, more entombment, more grief. Even Jesus weeps. Do we really want to go there?
These are valid questions.
I can understand and even share some of the feelings behind them.
And still I wonder if there is not good and helpful and hopeful and life-giving news for us in these stories, even now. Especially now.
Ezekiel’s vision and the story of Lazarus death and resuscitation might offer both perspective on what we’re going through and resources for how to deal with it. It seems to me that God’s love for life is never stronger and more transformative than when life is endangered or life seems to be gone.
The valley of dry bones speaks to the death, disempowerment, or estrangement of an entire people—in this case, the nation of Israel. The valley—which is to say the entire people—reeks of despair. There is a sense of finality about this place. Everything that was right and good is all over, and there is nothing that can be done.
But Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that no matter what our circumstances, God will always be God. And the God who is Love, the God who is the ground and source of all that is, will always be with us. God’s love for life and for us never changes or ends; God’s word is ever powerful; and God’s commitment to creating, redeeming, and restoring life never fails.
And God is as close to us as our next breath.
When we realize that, when we live as if it were true, we can see and feel and even hear the parts of ourselves that were dead, the parts of our lives that had vanished, the parts of the world that seem forever broken begin to reassemble themselves, rattling like so many dry bones, reconnecting like the hip bone to the thigh bone.
And so it is that in these days of pandemic and fear, distancing and death, many of us are getting reacquainted with our true selves. We are reconnecting to family and friends and neighbors. Once again, we know ourselves to be one people, across national borders and lines of race and religion, politics and economics.
A God who loves life can stitch the whole world back together. And a people who love God and the life God gives can find themselves knit back together and pulled up and out of the graves they dug for themselves with their self-sufficient, isolated, fast-paced, consumption-oriented ways.
Empowered by the Spirit breath of God, we will again live and love, standing together on our own feet, on our own soil, in our shared blessed lives.
And then there’s the Lazarus story, a story closer to our own than we may realize. Lazarus was loved by Martha and Mary and beloved of Jesus—but love, you see, was not enough to keep him alive. We don’t know exactly what killed him—maybe a ruptured appendix, a weak heart, a nasty parasite, or a deadly virus. Whatever it was, once he was gone, his sisters’ grief mixed with anger over what could have been, and they began playing the blame game. Just as so many of us blame God for our suffering, or blame the president for a weak national response to the coronavirus pandemic, Mary and Martha blamed Jesus for their heartbreaking loss.
If you had only been here, they tell him, our brother wouldn’t have died. You were not here, and now he’s dead.
Confronted with the sisters’ grief and the pain of his own loss, Jesus wept.
But because God loves life, that is not the end of the story. It seems that wherever there is a grave or a tomb, God is eager to call us out of it. And because God is in everything, including our next breath, and beyond everything, even a pandemic, and all in all, even something as deadly and destructive as the coronavirus can call us out of our tombs.
And so it is that social distancing and economic shutdown and plain old fear are calling us out of our tombs of complacency, our tombs of individualism, our tombs of privilege and control, hatred and division, routine and stress, unawareness and inattentiveness, old ways of thinking and comfortable ways of doing things.
But if the Lazarus story is any guide, it will not be enough to follow Love’s call to come out of our tombs. To be fully restored to life and community and hope, we will need one another’s care and compassion, unity and solidarity to liberate ourselves and each other from all that binds us. We will need prayers and caring, shared values, common goals, and a creative generosity to let go of our fears and old ways of doing things so that all people might live and shine in the light of God.
I don’t mean to discount the grimness of our situation. I have no illusions whatsoever about all the physical, societal, financial, and emotional ramifications and ripple effects of this pandemic, or how our lives will continue to be changed by it.
But I know that God loves life, and I see that love manifest in everything from heroic health care and grocery workers, tireless public officials, chalk messages on sidewalks and cell-phone singalongs to virtual tip jars, hand-sewn protective masks, and a thousand unsung kindnesses every day. God’s love for life is bigger and deeper and more powerful than even the worst pandemic.
Could it be that even in these frightening, disruptive, and deadly days we are being brought up from our graves and called out of our tombs?
May it be so.